The Supreme Court on June 29 upheld the verdict for a former Koh Rong commune council member in Preah Sihanouk province who was found guilty of fraudulently signing over 525ha of state land, following a June 15 hearing.

According to the case file read out by Judge Kong Srim, 58-year-old Hem Sa Les and five other defendants were each sentenced to seven years in prison and also ordered to pay a fine of 10 million riel ($2,500) by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court in January 2020.

Unhappy with the decision, the six took their cases to the Phnom Penh Municipal Appeal Court who upheld their guilty verdicts in June 2021. Despite the ruling, the Appeal Court general prosecutor filed grievance to the Supreme Court, arguing that the prison sentence and the amount of fine were too lenient.

However, the general prosecutor later withdrew the complaints against all but Sa Les, who took his case to the top court while the five others accepted their verdicts.

At the Supreme Court hearing on June 15, Sa Les pleaded that he was merely a community leader in Prey Svay village of Koh Rong commune, while his defence lawyer argued that the penalties imposed were not appropriate because his client was just a contract official and not a civil servant within the state employment framework.

However, the judge found that the law did not mandate any particular function or role that officials must have when determining their culpability or punishment for corrupt acts.

He continued that after hearing the arguments made by the defence attorney and the accused, the Supreme Court judges decided to rule in favour of the Appeal Court's decision.

“The Phnom Penh Municipal Appeal Court’s decision was lawful and correct, which is why the Supreme Court upholds the ruling orders that Sa Les immediately begin his prison sentence,” said the judge.

According to the case files, from 2001 to 2018, Sa Les was a leader of the Prey Svay village community and from 2016-2019, he and his five co-defendants had all colluded to falsify land documents for their own personal gain until their arrests in 2019.

They were found guilty of deliberate destruction of official documents, embezzlement of state funds or assets, forging and use of official documents for corrupt purposes and the abuse of power as public officials under articles 601, 629 and 630 of the Criminal Code, along with Article 35 of the Anti-Corruption Law.